Folkways Recordings, now part of the Smithsonian, has made many important recordings, interviews, and other documentation of America’s folk music since the 1940s. They still make available two good recordings of Pennsylvania folk music. I take pleasure in having a music of our own, a music that speaks of the places and experiences of our own people.
Whether you purchase the CDs or listen to the albums on Spotify or elsewhere, be sure to download the liner notes from the webpages for the albums (links below). The notes provide both lyrics (and translations when needed) and essential background information about the songs.
Vivien Richman’s Folk Songs of West Pennsylvania
This 1959 recording has English-language songs about mill workers, industrialization, the decline of the Conestoga wagoners, the French and Indian War, and other topics. Some songs are humorous (“Forks of the Ohio”), some spirituals (“Hold On”), and others quite serious or even dark (“The Conestoga Wagoner’s Complaint”). These songs document the history of Western Pennsylvania.
The song that strikes most familiar for me is “The Gloom of Ligonier,” which describes the brutal 1760s winters of Fort Lignonier. I have too many times tried to cross the Ligonier Mountain in winter. We always knew that, when going from Johnstown to Pittsburgh in winter, the Ligonier Mountain was going to be the worst part. I recall one bad day after a snow storm when car after car tried creeping down the side of the road, using the berm for some traction on our right sides to keep us from just going off the road. Looking back, I wonder why were bothered trying. But we made it. I sympathize with the poor British soldier who wrote these lyrics.
Jacob Evanson collected many more Western Pennsylvania songs, published them, taught them to school children, and made them available for this recording. Richman was a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and a performer and education of folk music.
George Britton’s Pennsylvania Dutch Folk Songs
This 1955 recording consists entirely of Pennsylvania Dutch-language songs. Unlike the Folk Songs of West Pennsylvania, this album is up-beat. In fact, many of the songs are for children. Others are for particular holidays.
You don’t need to understand the language to enjoy this album. If nothing else, listening to it over and over will give you a good ear for the sounds of the language, the language that many of my ancestors spoke and heard and that a few hundred thousand people, probably half of them in Pennsylvania, still speak today.
George Britton was a folk singer and folk song collector who toured widely and sang from a wide repertoire. He was from Reading in Berks County. Quite naturally, he gathered and recorded the songs of his own Pennsylvania Dutch ancestors. Britton heard many of these songs from his own family when he was a child.